Workplace literacy and the influences of technology between implicitness and definition challenges – recruiting as a bridging position

This has been my final assignment for the first course of my Master’s studies about digital literacy (Winter 2014). I was fascinated by the interconnection of (adult) education and getting a job, as well as the discussion about what it meant to be workplace literate. It was an ambitious assignment which I still find interesting to read, even though it is a bit too lengthy and not straight to the point. Enjoy!

The struggle for finding a superordinate definition of literacy can be retrieved regarding workplace literacy discussions (Mikulecky, 1988; Perin, 1997; Hull 2000; Belfiore, Defoe, Folinsbee, Hunter, and Jackson, 2004) and the influences of technology, being of interest for the workplace as a transforming key factor (Reinking, 1998). When literacy is seen as an age-independent continuum, distinguishing sharply between young and adult learners becomes hindering (UNESCO, 2009). In addition, the traditional dichotomy between literate-illiterate slows down the acknowledgement of lifelong learning (UNESCO, 2013). Rather, literacy is synonymous with “fundamental components of a complex set of foundational skills (or basic competencies), which require sustained learning and updating” (UNESCO, 2013, p. 17) to function as an empowering tool enriched by literate environments (UIL, 2010). The workplace connects various age groups with an enriched literate environment, where a social practice view of literacy is appropriate. When literacy is perceived as context-specific (UNESCO, 2005), a context definition backs the detection of skills and competencies for successful participation. Recruiting as a potential interface bridging literacy and context contributes by specifying required competencies to apply functional literacy in the work context. However, the expansion of literacy concepts complicates analysing it and distinguishing from “expressions such as knowledge, competence and learning” (Säljö, 2012, p. 6).

Literacy discussions incorporate technological influences slowly (UNESCO, 2013). The relation of literacy and technology can be described by the three frameworks learning, change and power (Warschauer and Ware, 2008). These frameworks can be relocated in the context of adult education, linking the fields of literacy, adult education and workplace environments. Warschauer and Ware (2008) see “literacies as plural, consisting of multiple competencies and practises, each shaped by different contexts, purposes and uses” (p. 215). They argue that a more narrow definition is limiting in a world with emerging digital media. In regard to their three-category framework, McCaffery, Merrifield and Millican (2007) focus on adult education and regard literacy as having several layers with its roots in reading and writing skills and as being contextualised in a social environment. The framework of Warschauer and Ware is related to McCaffery et al. (2007) and UNESCO (2013) to support the statement, that the change framework suits well to the workplace environment. The learning framework (competency approach; literacy as skills) focuses on how technology is used for learning and how it has an impact on learning outcomes. The change framework (social practice approach) considers technology as embodied in literacy, society and culture. ICT (information and communications technology) is compared to other means of communication, challenging traditional schooling due to its incapacity to keep up with rapid changes. Literacy represents how people use texts and make meaning out of it. However, the mere exposure to new literacies is not equated with benefitting from or engaging with them. Tightly connected with this framework are the results of the New London Group (1996) and the field of “new literacy studies” (Warschauer & Ware, 2008, p. 227). The power framework (radical approach; literacy as a tool for critical reflection and action for social change) has in common with the change framework the rapid flux of literacies whereas literacy practises are more closly connected to achieving social, economical and/or educational power. With the learning framework it shares the acknowledgement of educational achievement while the focus is on how students’ context shape access.

Focusing on the change framework seems particularly supporting in the workplace context where the general idea of reading and writing has to be applied to specific contexts. Furthermore, the research interest of describing the relation between home and school literacy practises can be extended by workplace practises. New literacy studies might be able to answer the call for a social practice view of literacy which “shows not just how people use texts socially, but how the meanings they give to texts […] are socially shaped” (Belfiore et al, 2004). They focus on reading and writing in the social context and are grounded on social, psychological and historical aspects (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007; Barton & Lee, 2010). When it comes to literacy and new technology, it’s the “literate activities associated with new technologies” (Barton & Lee, 2010, p. 607) not the mere acquisition of computer skills. Bawden, D. (2008) coins the term “digital literacy” as a broader concepts which links ICT skills to soft-skills such as evaluating and understanding information (p. 28).

Recruiting fulfils a company’s personnel requirement, closing the capacity gap by allocating personnel (Wöhe, 2010) after screening (or assessing) potential employees. Thereby it operates as the interface between ‘literacy supply and demand’, redefining and shaping workplace requirements continuously by adjusting to labour market and personnel planning factors. One controversy in relation to literacy is the implicitness of functional literacy when defining competencies and the split between expertise (directly related to the job position) and interdisciplinary competencies (Rump, 2005). Johnson & Kress (2003) acknowledge this interwoven nature of theory, implementation and examination of new literacy studies. They distinguish between different environments (e.g. the workplace) where literacy applies but at the same time recognize the limitation of strict borders between these environments. The challenge is to define the workplace as a common environment reaching across organizations, where this can be demanding in one single organization (with diverse local cultures facing specific economical, societal and cultural influences within one corporate culture). The economical effects of globalisation are enriched by cultural effects, resulting out of (besides others) technology and automatisation (Kelly, Montigny, O’Neill & Sharpe, 1992; Reinking, 1998).

Benseman, J. (2014) describes Literacy, language and numeracy (LLN) as relatively new due to the fact that these skills are important as a prerequisite for all other forms of training. He contributes to the belief of the workplace as an enriching literate environment requiring a certain level of functional literacy. However, motivational aspects of learning to become literate are disregarded, when the context of application is unknown (D’Amico, 1997; Corus & Ozanne, 2011). In literacy conceptions, where diverse instances are contributing, the challenge of implicitness and definition can be solved by collaboration across artificially created borders between institutions, companies and others – recruiting in companies as one potential bridging position being able to support the communication process.

To improve productivity in organizations increasing skills are needed but Bensemann identifies a lack of defining these skills. The concept of employability investigate interdisciplinary qualification competencies (such as professional competence, initiative, entrepreneurial thinking) to define the ability to participate in work live (Rump, 2005) . These competencies shall be seen as a reference frame for lifelong learning and continuous personal reflection. However, they do not include critical technological awareness. Emerging technologies are perceived as tools for the workplace, implications on cognition (Säljö, 2012) and social bonds (Bazerman, 2011) are left aside. Simply using tools at home does not imply the same rules as at work (Säljö, 2012). Critical thinking is not necessarily linked to technological artifacts, where employees fail to recognise simple processes operating in personal computers. This is not a question of expertise but of how much we have to white-box the black-boxing effects emerging with technology (Säljö, 2012). Recruiting processes seem to incorporate technological components – again – implicitly without being able to define them.

To solve the “LLN-skills-demand / supply” mismatch Benseman proposes screening in the recruiting process (admitting the importance of an orderly labour market). However, there are two major limitations to be mentioned. First of all, to identify direct implication for LLN skills during the recruiting process, defining them explicitly during the selection process would be necessary. Certainly, the understanding of literacy is implicitly interwoven in required skills and competencies. For example, the request for a secondary school degree implicitly includes the ability to read and write. Secondly, to analyse the selection process, other influencing factors have to be considered to detect a correlation between companies’ skill needs and recruiting requirements. Due to the dependency on the labour market, recruiters have to adjust skills that do not necessarily meet the needs.

Recruiting is about finding the motivated; but in a broader perspective of literacy learning the question is rather what motivates people to become literate in a particular context. In fact, the focus should be on workplace literacy as expanding functional literacy by offering an enriched literate environment, which per se has the potential to motivate people to learn reading and writing. To support this motivation and to succeed in the workplace environment, identifying competencies to link literacy learning with context is necessary. Technological critical awareness is a potential interdisciplinary competency. The relation between workplace literacy and employability raises the question of who needs to read and who is motivated to engage in new literacy practises (Martin, 1998;, Scholtz & Prinsloo, 2001), how existing collaboration projects between industry and education are evaluated systematically (Leach & Zepke, 2005) and how to deal with the contradiction between the “inability to recruit employees with […] adequate skills” (Townsend & Waterhouse, 2008, p. 7) and “an increasing share of university-educated workers […] taking jobs where the average educational level has been much lower” (Brown, Hesketh, & Williams, 2004). Defining workplace literacy raises the question of responsibility for developing it (Townsend & Waterhouse, 2008). Collaboration between education, training providers and employers is seen as the key, arguing that educational and training systems are not able to stuff employers with job-ready applicants. Literacy learning thus becomes a continuum, where literacy supply are reflected by the schooling system; literacy demand by recruiting specialists. If functional literacy is seen as a foundational skill set, can we assume a transfer of knowledge to specific job training skills? How can workplace literacy be defined in a world where most of the future jobs are unknown today and position descriptions (the ‘borders’ between jobs) become more flexible?


My posters for the final presentation


Barton, D., Lee, C. (2010). Literacy Studies, In Wodak, R., Johnstone, B. & Kerswill, P. (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 598-611), Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.

Bawden, D. (2008). Origins and concepts of Digital Literacy, In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (Eds.), Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices (pp. 17-32), New York: Peter Lang.

Bazerman, C. (2011). Electrons Are Cheap; Society Is Dear, In Starke-Meyerring, D., Paré, A., Artemeva, N., Horne, M., & Yousoubova, L. (Eds.), Writing in Knowledge Societies. Perspectives on Writing (pp. 75-84), Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.

Belfiore, M.; Defoe, T. A.; Folinsbee, S.; Hunter, J. & Jackson, N. S. (2004). Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. (2004), What Knowledge Economy?. In Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy,  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Corus, C. & L. Ozanne, J. L. (2011). Critical Literacy Programs: Can Business Literacy be a Catalyst for Economic and Social Change?, Journal of macromarketing, 31, 184 – 198.

D’Amico, D. (1997). Adult education and welfare to work initiatives: a review of research, practice, and policy, Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Hull, G. (2000). Critical literacy at work. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(7), 648.

Johnson, D., & Kress, G. (2003). Globalisation, Literacy and Society: Redesigning pedagogy and assessment, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(1), 5-14.

Kelly, K., Montigny, G., O’Neill, T. & Sharpe, A. (1992). Literacy in the workplace, Perspectives on Labour and Income,  4(1).

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2007). Sampling ‘The New’ in New Literacies, In Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (Eds.), A New Literacies Sampler (pp. 1-24). New York: Peter Lang.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, New York: Peter Lang.

Leach, L., & Zepke, N. (2005). Literacy in the workplace: An example of industry-university collaboration, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 57(2), 203-217.

Martin, J. (1998). As a blue-collar worker, does Johnny need to read?, Adult Basic Education, 8(3), 139.

McCaffery, J., Merrifield, J. & Millican, J. (2007). Developing adult literacy: Approaches to planning, implementing, and delivering literacy initiates, Oxford : Oxfam GB.

Mikulecky, L. (1988), Literacy for the Workplace.

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures, Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Perin, D. (1997). Workplace literacy assessment, Dyslexia, 3, 190–200.

Reinking, D. (1998). Changing Workplaces, Changing Classes: The New Role of Technology, In Mahwah, N. J., Handbook of Literacy and Technology. Transformations in a Post-typographic World.  L. Erlbaum Associates.

Rump, J. (2005): Employability Management, Abschlussbericht, Ludwigshafen 2005.

Scholtz, S., & Prinsloo, M. (2001). New workplaces, new literacies, new identities, Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(8), 710.

Säljö, R. (2012). Literacy, digital literacy and epistemic practices: The co-evaluation of hybrid minds and external memory systems, Nordic Journal of Digital Literacies, 7(1), 5-19.

Townsend, R. & Waterhouse, P. (2008). Whose responsibility? Employers’ views on developing their workers’ literacy, numeracy and employability skills.

UIL (2010). CONFINTEA VI: Belém Framework for Action: Harnessing the power and potential of adult learning and education for a viable future, Hamburg, UIL.

UNESCO (2005). Aspects of Literacy Assessment. Topics and issues from the UNESCO Expert Meeting, 10-12 June 2003, Paris.

UNESCO (2009). Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, Hamburg, Germany.

UNESCO (2013). 2nd Global Report on Adult Learning and Education. Rethinking Literacy, Hamburg, Germany.

Warschauer, M., & Ware, P.D. (2008). Learning, change and power: Competing frames of technology and literacy. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D.J. Leu. (Eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies (pp.215-240). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wöhe, G. (2010). Einführung in die Allgemeine Betriebswirtschaftslehre. 24. Ed., Vahlen.

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